You must vibrate EVERY note!

Please don’t. We’ve all had wonderful teachers who have said this to us at times. I don’t think they actually meant it. Vibrating every note is like adding sugar to everything you eat. EVERYTHING! Usually, the vibrato is singled out when someone is vibrating only certain fingers in only certain positions. If that is happening, either the vibrato is coming from the wrong place in the arm/hand or the hand is not balanced. The ideal is to be able to vibrato on every note and then choose when and how you want to color the phrase with it. OK, so let’s go back to some basics.

Considering at the basic vibrato motion, try this exercise. It’s something for cellists just learning how to vibrate but is also useful to come back to as a refresher. Find 1st position on any string. With your thumb anchored on the neck and your fingers lightly touching the string, do a very wide vibrato motion. Let your fingers slide up and down the string concentrating on the motion of your arm. I like to focus on the place about two inches back from your wrist. This is something that can also be done away from the instrument using your right arm to substitute for the neck of the cello. (Good for late night TV reruns)

More to come... 

New Pieces and Rhythm

It’s the second week of rehearsals here in Hong Kong with the Asian Youth Orchestra. Working with talented cellists from across Asia is a great pleasure. This summer we are discovering Beethoven’s 5th, Brahms’ 3rd and Sibelius’ 2nd Symphonies. For some of the cellists it’s their first time performing these masterpieces. Working with them, I’m again reminded of important fundamentals when learning a new piece.

Before anything else, we need to know and internalize the rhythm of a piece. Rhythm is the foundation of Western Classical music. Without it there is no structure to our phrasing and there can be no necessary tension to the piece. As we all know, music exists in time. Without rhythm and pulse we have lost that framework. If you will, try viewing rhythm as a skeleton on which you add the notes of any given phrase. Having mastered the rhythm by clapping or singing, take a look at the pitches. After understanding the rhythm and pulse it will become more easily apparent which fingerings work best with the ebb and flow of the music.


Never Be Satisfied

There has been a lot in the news this week about American teachers being too nice, or not strict enough, with their students. Here are some thoughts of mine for conservatory and college music students. I hope they are helpful.

If I could say just one thing to young professional musicians it would be, “Never be satisfied with your performances.” Occasionally, when I ask my students how a concert of theirs has gone they will say, “Oh, it was good.” I find this statement a bit puzzling. Was the student simply commenting on their relief to have gotten through a performance? Certainly after a good amount of preparation and anxiety around a concert it could feel good to have gotten through it without an embarrassing mishap or being hit by rotten tomatoes from angry audience members. Certainly at school concerts there is a terrific amount of applause that let’s us feel very much appreciated. Not bad things at all, though I’ve noticed that the applause is often directly related to how many of the performer’s friends are in the audience and not necessarily related to how compelling the performance actually was.

Now, if you have truly done the best preparation you can and played your absolute best at a given point in your career you can be happy, and should be, that you have made progress. However, not making a mistake or bungling a technical passage, simply playing very fast or in tune does not make a performance of the music. As artists we must push ourselves to be the most expressive and intelligent players we can be.

And now to my point: don’t rely on your teachers, or friends, to tell you how much you can accomplish. You learn valuable skills and philosophies from your teachers, if you pay attention and work hard, but you must become your own judge and disciplinarian. As a musician you will be confronted by your own demons, your own shortcomings and frustrations on a daily basis. If you can tolerate the demands, the rewards are beyond measure. Your musical voice is up to you and your standards alone. Always strive to be better. Never be satisfied.


Efficient Practicing: When you wish you had all day...

4 hours a day, 6 days a week 

Reason: You are at a formative point in your career. Now is the time for you to solidify your technique, develop as a musician and learn to play in a healthy and efficient way. Yes, you’ll improve even into your (gasp!) 40s and 50s but your high school and college years do not come back. You need a good foundation. Now is the time. Carpe Diem!

1 day off per week (This means not even looking at a cello.) 

Reason: You want to remain fresh and enthusiastic. A lot of learning an instrument is repetition. It’s easy to burn out both physically and mentally. Perhaps more importantly, life and becoming a great recreative artist is not just about the practice room. Get out and do something new.

The 4 Hours:

  •                        15 minutes - warm up 
  •                        45 minutes - an étude 
  •                         1 hour - a concerto 
  •                         1 hour - a sonata 
  •                         1 hour - chamber music, orchestra assignments, etc

Time your practicing. If you’ve planned to spend 30 minutes on a Popper etude after 30 minutes, STOP! You may feel like you want to go on for another hour. DON’T! Save it for tomorrow. You may want to quit after 10 minutes. DON’T! Stay with it. 

Mix it up. Use one practice routine for three days then change the recipe. For example, spend less time on the concerto and more time on the sonata.

Tired, restless or bored? Try these ideas.

  • Practice from the end of the piece instead of the beginning. For example, start with the recap.
  • Practice all the like passages (exposition 1st theme, recap 1st theme, etc). How are they different?
  • Work on intonation in all the slower parts. Use a drone. Check intonation with open strings. Is your instrument vibrating freely? It will if you are playing in tune. Notice how the instrument feels when notes are in tune and when they are not. Feel the vibrations through the bow and left hand. 
  • Woodshed only the fast passages. Read them through twice at the fastest tempo you can. What sections didn’t go so well? Why? Was it the bow? Shifts? Coordination? Work on only those parts that are problematic. Be specific in pinpointing the problem. Transition into and out of those passages. Finish playing the entire passage slowly. Be sure to use the bowings and fingerings you will use when it’s fast. Use minimal motion. Be efficient.

When to practice. Unpopular as this might be, I recommend you put in an hour or two first thing in the morning. In these early hours your ears are not filled with the sounds of the day and your mind is not running down a laundry list of things you have to do.  

After you finish practicing for the day. Listen to 10 minutes of a really beautiful cello sound. That is the sound you should expect to hear the next day in the practice room.

The most difficult task in learning and living with an instrument is discovering out how to teach yourself. Teachers can only point you in the right direction. In the end, it’s up to you.